by Lael Ewy
At first, it would seem odd that a nation bent on social climbing, personal betterment, and the acquisition of wealth would also be so enamored of victimization.
On further reflection, though, it makes sense: if we gear everything for competition, we have to have something to do with all the losers. And, more important, the losers have to have some type of identity other than “loser,” which is, in the United States, a much worse label than “died trying,” or even “cheated his way to the top.”
In some cases, the victim identity can be a way of bringing attention to real social inequities: those exposing racism, sexism, and rape culture have all successfully “played the victim card” in order to help the rest of us see the real problem for what it is. For some people who are victimized by their social conditions, publicizing victimization brings unexpected social power, such as in the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year old lynched in 1955. Till's mother insisted that his body be publicly displayed in order to show the brutality of the crime perpetrated against him, helping to further the cause of the Civil Rights movement of the time.
Inevitably, this necessary demonstration of social evil creates backlash among those on the wrong side of history via claims that it's not as bad as the victims say (“They were happier when they were slaves.”), that those pressing their social cause are undeserving (“They're faking,” or “They're gaming the system.”), that they had it coming anyway (“If you dress like that, you're asking for it.”), or that they are, themselves, the victimizers (“Feminazis.”).
The advantages of victimhood are, while powerful, by nature also limited: once the victim identity has been publicly acknowledged and attention to the cause secured, incremental court decisions or legislative changes are made, and then those in power, satisfied that they have “fixed it” go on doing their thing, which is staying in power. This, then, marks the end of the social power of victimhood and where the limitations of the individual power of victimhood become apparent. The victim, by using that term in order to gain power, finds that she only has power within that frame and can never again step beyond it and back into full, human identity. The disabled person may be able to press her case for a reasonable accommodation using the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, but that does not guarantee access to executive positions, marriage partners, or academic appointments,
Both despite and because of the advent of things like Affirmative Action and the ADA, the power structure goes out of its way to increase the barriers to moving forward and moving up. “We've given you what you want,” the powerful seem to say, “now shut up and go away.” Understanding this attitude is key to understanding the sources of institutional discrimination and how oppression becomes structural. By setting up structural barriers, those in power protect themselves and those like them. As demographics shift, you'll see (and probably have already seen) the traditional, white, male power structure become ever stronger, the reins of power ever more difficult to take in hand for those who haven't proven their loyalty to the status quo.
Reverse victimization plays into the ways the powerful stay in power. Donald Trump insist that those whom he insulted apologize to him; white students claim “reverse discrimination” when they don't get into the college they want to get into; whole political movements rise to power on the idea that we need to “take America back” from the teeming mob who stole it from them. Those who play this game often fail to realize its limitations, that they, too, will be duped by the truly powerful people who help them promote their sense of victimization. The poor and middle class white people riding Trumpist and Tea Party politics will, if history is any indication, be no better off or even lose ground under the leadership they promote. This is just fine with those who stand to gain from such sentiments among the hoi polloi: after all, the Tea Party backers won't be “losers”; they'll be the perpetual victims of black people, brown people, and inner-city “welfare cheats,” perpetually able to be called upon to add “populist” credibility to what are essentially authoritarian political figures.
The culture of right-wing victimization has not yet, like the left, begun to move past the language of victimization and into the language of survivorship. Survivors of sexual assault, for example, have begun to harness this new power in order to be seen as credible brokers in dismantling rape culture on college campuses and in communicating a deeper understanding of how to end rape culture on the whole. The #blacklivesmatter movement has received criticism for its directness and for not being the squeaky-clean thing that white folks want it to be. That arises from #blacklivesmatter being made up of people who refuse to play the victim in the first place: the movement gets criticized because it's no longer possible to ignore. The white power structure had become comfortable with the image of the black victim—of poverty, racism, and overall downtroddenness. As long as there were black victims, whites could take comfort in a kind of well-meaning but entirely patronizing sympathy, to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. as a fallen national hero, to declare a black history month, and to mention Kwanzaa in defense of a “happy holidays” greeting. This is the same mentality that promotes the idea of the “Magical Negro” (noted by Spike Lee in regards to such characters as Bagger Vance) and safe sidekicks such as Danny Glover's character in the Lethal Weapon franchise. This safe view is distinctly challenged by the idea that black people are also allowed to be, you know, people.
In the mental health field, the antipsychiatry movement of the '60s and '70s transformed into the “consumer” movement of the '80s and '90s and into an “illness” movement of the '90s and '00s. The idea was that by identifying as “the mentally ill,” as victims of a blameless disease, suffering people would gain access to treatment, decent housing, and disability benefits. The “it's better than being on the streets” mentality has grown to embrace an acceptance of psychiatric incarceration, anathema to early activists.
The real danger looming in all this is that if people move beyond victimization and into survivorship, they might become assimilated into a culture that they don't recognize, and that people may lose their identity in the process. Can a black American be both an American and black when one of the defining features of American culture is structural racism? This is the field upon which Barack Obama has played out his political career, and the deep contradictions it creates can be seen in the deep contradictions of his administration: successfully bailing out some of the least deserving parts of the power structure, such as Wall Street and General Motors, while simultaneously challenging that power structure in the realm of gay rights. President Obama ground his entire political machine into dust in order to pass the Affordable Care Act, an immensely compromised attempt to expand access to health care that also carefully maintained the least deserving part of it: the profits of private insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies.
A fuller understanding of how power works in the US is in order, one that goes beyond the simple mechanisms of victim and perpetrator, loser and winner. Kimberlé Crenshaw's ideas about intersectionality move toward this, and may prove vital in understanding how power works in a nation in which there is no official, hereditary class structure. We are far from the point at which we can make such ideas meme-worthy, though, and you'd be hard-pressed to hear them discussed in a seven-minute spot on NPR, much less a two-and-a-half minute piece on the CBS Evening News.
Our next step, then, is not to create another reactionary political uprising, but to foment a genuine social movement that can articulate a vision of a future of both genuine equality and robust cultural diversity.